The Spartan General

Monty

Colonel Montgomery accidentally caught in Churchill Photograph

Born on this day in 1887 Bernard Law Montgomery was a hero of two world wars.

Son of an Ulster-Scots Church of Ireland Reverend Minister from Inishowen in Donegal.  Born in Surrey and grew up in Tasmania where his father was appointed as Bishop.

When he attended military college he was almost expelled for “rowdiness and violence”

He was already an adjutant in the British Army when WW1 broke out.  He fought in the famous retreat from Mons and was shot in one lung.  He recovered and returned to duty to fight again at Arras and Passchendaele.  He finished the war with a rank of lieutenant colonel and it was in this capacity that he was caught in the photograph above in a prophetic juxtaposition with Winston Churchill.

He married Betty Carver in 1927, widow of an Olympic Athlete who died in WW1, mother of two sons.  She had a moderating effect on Montgomery, smoothing out the negatives in his character, his violence, his intractability, his single mindedness.  The qualities that made him a successful battle commander did not serve him well in the 20’s and 20’s.  She helped him greatly to advance his peacetime career.

In a tragic set of circumstances she died of an infected insect bite that gave her blood poisoning and she died in his arms, leaving him grief stricken.

When WW2 commenced Montgomery immediately demonstrated his fitness as a battle commander.  He retreated from France with his command intact, ordering a night time march to reach Dunkirk, and returning to Britain with minimal casualties.

His abrasive manner ruffled feathers at military command and he was openly and frankly critical of the command of the BEF.  He had a reputation for physical and mental toughness and insisted on the physical fitness of all his men, including the senior officers.  He was ruthless in sacking men he saw as unfit to command.

When Winston Churchill sought a commander to replace Auchinleck in North Africa he was convinced to select Montgomery.  His transformation of the 8th Army and his defeat of Rommel at 2nd El Alamein are the stuff of legend.

From then on the march of Monty was the March of Britain.  Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, until he tarnished the polish of his legend in Arnhem with that Bridge Too Far in Operation Market Garden.  Had he succeeded Monty could have ended the war a year earlier.  But perhaps not.

Peace time was not good for Montgomery with no understanding wife to iron out his worst tendencies.  He upset many with his memoirs of the war and even faced legal challenges to what he wrote.  He demonstrated himself as the worst kind of bigot with his stances on issues such as apartheid and homosexuality.

 

Montgomery: by A.P. Herbert

Field Marshal, few, and foolish, are the lands
that do not hail the baton in your hands.
They labelled you a ‘showman’. But we know
good showmen must have something good to show:
One does not capture by the showman’s art
the people’s confidence, the soldier’s heart.
They said you were ‘eccentric’. We could do
with several abnormalities like you:
It needs a not quite ordinary man
to start at Alamein and take Sedan.
Master of craft, and horror of the Huns,
one hundred salvos from a thousand guns!
September 3, 1944

Monty2

Normandy 1944 at the height of fame.

 

Le Paradis

Bill & Bert at war crimes tribunal

Bill & Bert at war crimes tribunal

May 27th, 1940.  A group of soldiers from the Royal Norfolk regiment were isolated in the French village of Le Paradis, just south of Mons in Belgium.  They were engaged in a holding action to give time for the evacuation of the BEF from France in Dunkirk.

When they ran out of ammunition, with many of the men wounded, the 99 survivors were ordered by their Major to surrender.  They surrendered to Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, the commander of the SS Totenkopf (Deaths Head) unit.

The SS unit set up two heavy machine guns, marched the Norfolks up against the wall of a barn, and machine gunned them down.  They were then ordered by Knöchlein to bayonet the survivors to death.  It seems this elite group of hard line Nazi’s didn’t need much ordering.

Beneath the dead two wounded Englishmen survived.  Private William (Bill) O’Callaghan dragged Private Albert (Bert) Pooley out from under the bodies.  They survived for three days hiding in a pigsty drinking dirty water, eating raw eggs and potatoes.  When the owners of the farm found them they took care of the two men, under threat of punishment.

The men later surrendered to a regular Wehrmacht infantry division.  O’Callahan was sent to a POW camp in Poland for the duration of the war.  Pooley was repatriated, unfit for service.

Initially the claims of the massacre by Pooley were met by disbelief.  It was not until the discovery of death camps at Bergen Belsen etc at the end of the war that his story gained credibility.  When O’Callaghan returned in 1945 he was able to confirm Pooley’s story.

In 1948 Knöchlein was tried for war crimes and found guilty.  He was hanged in 1949.  He was the only person to answer for the crime.  A mass grave in Le Paradis suggests that Knöchlein was also guilty of ordering the murder of 20 men of the Royal Scots who were isolated similarly to the Norfolks.

For the Fallen; Robert Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Old Contemptibles

Dease

When they marched into war in 1914 the British regular army was unsure of its credentials on the great European stage.  It was over 60 years since the Crimean war, the last time Britain engaged with European foes.  In the interim years the German and French armies had modernised and traded blows with each other a number of times.

The Germans were respectful of the French army, but saw the British Expeditionary Force as irrelevant to the bigger picture.  On 23rd August 1914 the Germans met the British at Mons.  Though they outnumbered the British 3:1 the Germans were stopped in their tracks for 48 hours.

So rapid and concentrated was the fire from the British rifles that the Germans were sure they faced machine gun batteries.  They came away from the battle with a new found respect for the British army.

At British headquarters the brass concocted a supposed order from the Kaiser to his troops, telling them to “march over the contemptible little British army”.  Although it was pure morale boosting propaganda, the soldiers believed it and the story stuck.  The survivors of the British regular army were proud to bear the nickname “the old contemptibles”.

Not many of them survived the “race to the sea” and the regular British army ceased to exist as a force by the 1st battle of Ypres in November, 3 months after their first encounter with the Germans at Mons.

Mons became legendary for the British.  Practically, it demonstrated that the British regulars were more than a match for the Germans, and gave hope to the raw recruits drafted to replace the regulars.  Psychologically it established a legend for the British in France.  Soldiers spoke of seeing the “Angel of Mons” charging to battle with the British, supported by the spirits of longbowmen from Crecy and Agincourt.

100 years on, we remember the Great War, a war which lasted, to all intents, from 1914 to 1945.  We remember the fallen.  They shall not grow old.

 

For the Fallen; by Robert Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.